Not too long ago, I attended a funeral of a friend who was five years younger than me. After two and a half years of fighting the injuries he sustained in a car accident, he succumbed to them, leaving a church full of people dressed in black to eulogize his life. He was as jovial and free-spirited as a young man ever was and he made it his mission to infect others with his contagious happiness. From the day I met him, he had a smile for me, his “Texan friend,” and he made me feel like we’d been buddies for years. His was a relentless joy. He was Bob Cratchit. He was Amelie. He was Bert from Mary Poppins.
The service was pleasant as far as funerals go but I found myself paying more attention to the church building than the people speaking at the pulpit. As songs reverberated off the gilded walls of the ex-Broadway theatre in which we sat, I felt caught up in a tsunami’s worth of memories. Memories about my friend, yes, but also about what’d happened in that room, the place I’d met him, the place that served as my introduction to New York and to myself.
My first summer in Manhattan, I landed the world’s best internship. It lasted exactly the length of my break, housing was provided, and I was paid to work there. That’s the four-leaf-clover of collegiate internships. The front door of my apartment building would be 20 feet to the left of the entrance to Hairspray on 52nd Street and I’d spend my days interning at a church with a glistening reputation among Evangelical Super-Christians. Two months earlier, I’d visited New York for the first time during spring break and had fallen for it like an anchor in the mud. About twenty minutes after getting off the return flight to Dallas, I began voraciously hunting for opportunities to go back. When I stumbled on this internship, all systems said go and after a couple interviews, I was given the job for the summer.
On my first Sunday, I sat with the other interns who were around the same age as myself, carefully observing the format and rhythm of the service. Every church beats a little differently and I was curious to get a feel for the place. Well boy did I ever. In the span of a single sermon, the pastor condemned every television show I watched regularly, both the movies I’d watched as a kid and the movies I was eager to see that summer, and each of the Broadway shows down the block.
I sat aghast; my forehead could have been used to fry eggs. I mean, the pastor might as well have pointed directly at me and said, “Ryan, up in the fourth row of the mezzanine, everything you love is Satanic. Welcome.”
I’d imagined interning at a church in Times Square would provide an engaging and open-minded Christian experience. The church was housed in what used to be named the Mark Hellinger Theater, the place where Patti Lupone played Nancy in Oliver! and where Katherine Hepburn starred in her only Broadway musical. It’s where the movie of A Chorus Line was filmed and where Broadway shows like My Fair Lady and Jesus Christ Superstar made their debuts. Because of that embedded cultural pedigree, I assumed it would’ve remained a beacon of artistic accomplishment; changing the world from the middle of it all. Apparently not.
I was more confused than anything. Why would a church that sits at the heart of the world of theatre would be so overtly callous when it comes to the art form literally responsible for the building in which they worship?
To say I was flummoxed is an understatement but that was only the beginning. In the weeks that followed, I learned many in the church viewed New York as a stone-cold den of inequity. I wondered why someone would then choose to live in such a demonic place, but these folks wore their “calling” to save the Yankee heathens like a badge of honor.
I also learned that within this den of inequity, there were specific areas in which the sin was more densely concentrated. For instance, I was told on more than one occasion I should stay away from the West Village. At first, I did as I was told because I honestly didn’t know enough about the city to get from here-to-there-and-back anyway, but on a Friday night, one of my fellow interns invited me to go with him to rummage through stacks of CDs in the record shops in that part of town. Well, there was nothing I loved more than rummaging through hundreds of CDs to find a deal, so I threw on my shoes and off we went. We walked around Washington Square Park, checked out Astor Place and made our way to St. Marks and the record stores. I dug through bins of Broadway cast albums while people argued in the corner about the artistic merit of No Doubt versus Blondie. It was heaven. I found an original, double-CD, cast album of RENT with a cracked case and bought it because it felt setting-appropriate. I then saw RENT on Broadway the following evening. I’ve always been themey.
When asked about my weekend on Monday morning, I told the story of my amazing night rummaging in a basement record store and a woman who worked in the church office told me, her voice full of conviction, “You need to be careful down there. The rest of the city is laid out in a grid, but that part of town isn’t. Even the streets are a mess and that fully represents the messed-up lives of the sinners who live there.” Okay…I had a lot of questions.
What if every person in the West Village joined this church and that part of town became one giant prayer meeting? Wouldn’t the street layout remain the same? On the other hand, does that mean people on the Upper West Side are more likely to share your faith system because their intersections look like crosses?
I never asked. Being a smart ass in a church setting rarely gets you anywhere. Instead, I asked why she believed that to be true and she said that’s just the way it is. “Just look at it! It’s so obvious!” It wasn’t, but I let it go.
“That’s just the way it is” turned out to be the go-to sentiment at the church in Times Square. To an extent that made me uncomfortable, no one seemed to question anything the pastor said and the congregants followed him somewhat blindly. If he said to donate a certain amount of money, that’s what they did. If he instructed them to come to prayer meetings every night of the week, they showed up. I believe if he told them God wanted them to hit their sinning neighbor with a baseball bat, many would swing without hesitation. Perhaps being the new kid made me hyper aware of what was going on because I was watching everything and everyone so closely but seeing this herd of people act so blindly amenable to the pastor’s every word was really jarring.
Yet as jarring as it was, it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. I spent much of my adolescence unclear why we behaved the way we did at church. It wasn’t doubt about God; it was intrigue about the system. There seemed to be a laundry list of rules to follow in order to remain in the good graces of the men in power and, by not-so-subtly implied proxy, with God, but I was a young person growing into myself and it’s natural and necessary to ask questions about why things work the way they do. This got me into trouble on more than one occasion and I was told God would deal with my prideful heart, shaming me into compliance. To avoid conflict, I wrote off most of my questions as teenage angst and allowed myself to fall right in line with what I was told rather than doing the uncomfortable work of excavating my faith (and my opinions) for myself. I shouldn’t have let myself off the hook so easily, but I didn’t know any other way at the time.
Still, I couldn’t ignore the questions I had about the church’s apparent animosity toward the arts. Sunday after Sunday, I listened to the pastor, a man mythologized by his congregants, condemn all forms of entertainment outside of the church-fed choir program and the plays that were performed every once in a while and at Christmas. I knew things were really off-kilter when the pastor referred to the evils of “that play glorifying witchcraft across the street.” He was referring to the Broadway musical Wicked and I was so caught off guard by it, I turned to the interns next to me and without thinking, said loudly, “He knows that’s just the story of The Wizard of Oz right?” I was told to be quiet.
Throughout the summer, the pastor reiterated no less than five times that he had thrown out his television and decided to pray instead, the fruit of which was this church. I don’t deny that’s what he did or that it was right for him to do so, but as for me and my house, we will watch television. Apart from some of my intern cohorts with whom I made fast friends, I felt very alone on my liberal, television-less island; adrift in the current of the single most conservative Pentecostal community I’d ever encountered.
Halfway through the summer, one of the pastors told the congregation not to associate with people who weren’t Christians. He warned them to be weary of anyone with a different worldview than the prescribed view of the church because those people were being manipulated by Satan. At the final “amen,” I exited quickly and stress-ate an enormous portion of sesame chicken from a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant on 8th Avenue. Don’t associate with people who aren’t Christians? I felt like I was living in a madhouse. Or a cult, quite frankly. That goes against the very nature of who Jesus was and with whom he spent his time. Jesus didn’t hang out with church folks. As a matter of fact, he’d be far more likely to hang out in Washington Square Park than in this church building. I was furious but tried to remind myself Sunday mornings weren’t the reason I was there. I was helping with Billy Graham’s final Crusade, I was producing the church’s weekly radio show, I was living in New York for free, and I was spending every weekend seeing those sinful Broadway shows.
Seeing shows was, to put it mildly, my principle reason for being in New York. I’d been bitten by the Broadway bug during spring break and wanted to see as much as possible that summer. And I did. Week after week, sometimes twice on a Saturday, I stood in the TKTS line to buy my ticket to adventure and escape. It wasn’t a problem, until it was.
During one of our weekly intern meetings not long after we were told to segregate ourselves from the ungodly, our supervisor, a hefty blonde woman with inflated features and a slight limp, told us she was concerned about our wellbeing. She warned us to “watch what we put before our eyes and ears” because she’d “heard” there were interns embracing Broadway “filth” like Chicago.
It set me on fire. I was the intern who saw Chicago the previous weekend and I was the intern who raved about it in the hallway of our building. There were no rules against my doing this. I paid my own money to see “All That Jazz” sung on stage and dammit, it was sexy and scandalous and wonderful and I loved it.
This phrase, “watch what you put before your eyes and ears,” is a Christianese phrase I knew very well. It’s meant to serve as a reminder that what we put into our spirit is what will come out of it and I very much knew this to be true. I am extremely measured about what I ingest in terms of music and media because, as my mother always said, “Garbage in, garbage out.” However, in that meeting, it was weaponized as a shame tactic to inform me I was wrong, she knew what I did, and so did God.
My patience had grown tissue paper thin, so I told her, in front of the entire room, she could’ve just talked to me rather than being passive aggressive about it in public. Her plumpy eyes grew wider as I added that I loved the show and there wasn’t anything wrong with seeing it. She said we should all pray for discernment. Later that afternoon, my boss asked me about the incident because naturally, she’d been informed of my insubordination/spiritual deficiency that had manifest in the form of “mouthing off” to authority. Frustrated but owning it, I explained what happened, to which she responded, “Crazy Christians. Don’t let it get to you. God created the arts so enjoy them.”
A life raft. She was a life raft.
From my earliest memories, the arts had been the way I’d learned about myself, the world, and God; the stage and the Spirit going hand-in-hand. I didn’t believe in God because a pastor told me to or because I read it in a book. I believed in God because a group of puppets explained God’s love to me in a way I could understand. I believed in God because the choir at church painted such a vivid picture with their song that I could internalize and digest it. I believed in God because as I sang in the children’s musical, the words rang true to me.
As a teenager, the arts at church became my solace when I didn’t know which direction pointed north. For nine years, I wrote and performed dramas, harmonized and double-clapped in the youth choir, and spent the bulk of my time creating with my best friends. Our church and our fine arts programs weren’t perfect places, their blemishes were many, but I was loved, I had an outlet, and I was blissfully happy.
Seeing my boss roll her eyes at the priggishness of the “crazy Christians” was the hand I desperately needed and thankfully, it didn’t end there. She had a plan.
One of the projects I was charged with spear-heading that summer involved scanning hundreds of slides from church missions trips and cataloging them digitally. While it was true internship grunt work, my boss told me I got to do it an honest-to-goodness log cabin built in the 1930’s on a lake in New Jersey. The photographer who’d taken the photos owned a house on Lake Hopatcong along with the guest house next door and he let church folks use it for retreats and getaways. Calls were made, bags were packed and I happily headed to the lake.
The cabin was as idyllic and enchanted as anything I’d seen in the movies. It felt like stepping back in time; a place Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney would fall in love and then sing together by the fire. The lake splashed against the dock in a rhythm that could lull you to sleep and a rich green blanket of tree tops wrapped around the wooden cabin to keep it cool. It was super dreamy and a welcomed break from the heat in Manhattan. I imagined summer in New York wouldn’t be as hot as the summers I was used to in Texas but I didn’t take into account that since everything in the city is concrete, the heat endlessly volleys off the buildings and streets, never quite escaping. It makes Manhattan feel like an oven so that made spending a few days scanning photos next to the lake and evenings listening to the crickets sing as I watched I Love Lucy all the more wonderful.
But that was only the work part of the trip. There was an added and unbelievable-to-me bonus at the end when my boss arranged for me to ride back into the city with a man from the church who was in the cast of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. He and his wife also lived out on the lake and for the hourlong drive back to the city, he let me ask every question I could think of about Broadway and what his life looked like when he wasn’t singing “Be Our Guest.” And I asked him about everything—from salaries to auditions to what it was like to play the Beast—but the subject of the church eventually came up and when it did, I flat-out asked him how he could stand a church environment that was so hostile to his profession.
He said, “You’re never going to please all of God’s people because they’re just that: people.” He talked about how he chewed gum to warm up his throat before the matinee during church on Sunday mornings and how on more than one occasion, a congregant told him having gum in God’s house was going to defile it. A few months earlier, I would’ve thought he was kidding but by that point, I knew it wasn’t a reach. He said, “You know in your heart what’s right. Go with that.”
A week later, I went to see him in Beauty and the Beast and he invited me backstage to get a glimpse at how the show came to life. I’d never done anything like that before so looking up into the heavens and standing on Beast’s castle set was a dream I never knew I could experience. His being a real person coupled with his frankness about his tactile faith quelled much of my frustrations and gave me hope. I had to leave the church to find it, but I found it.
As the funeral for my young friend came to a close, I stood and took in the church one last time. The shimmering gold carvings, the paintings on the ceiling, the stage on which a fictional Jesus in Superstar form once took his bow in front of an adoring Broadway audience, all of it. I left thankful. Thankful for the life of my friend who gave so much to everyone around him and thankful for what that church had given me: the most challenging, frustrating, pivot-providing, eye-opening, perspective-enlarging, and (eventually) affirming summer of my life. It took time and distance and hindsight before I could fully process what had been forged in the fire there, but I emerged a more honest, more open, more unafraid man. In the sappy words of “that play glorifying witchcraft,” because of the church in Times Square, I had been changed for good.